Director M. Night Shyamalan Talks The Happening

Take heed the next time you prune the bushes or pull start that weed-wacker. That weed might remember; then send a neurotoxin in the air to get you to prune your arms and legs. This is the apocalyptic scenario of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, The Happening. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel stars as a young couple fleeing the foliage. Check out below as Shyamalan talks ratings and religion.

This is your first film with an R rating. What did you here that you didn't in the PG-13 films?

M. Night Shyamalan: I've gotten an R on two other movies, on The Sixth Sense and The Village. I got an R rating on those initially for the intensity of certain scenes. Then you just pull back a sound effect. We were right on the line and I could always just pull back a sound effect and resubmit it. All I would do is take out some sound effects. It's always a big impact because what you emotionally feel is different from what I actually showed. But this one, there was just no other way to do it. One of the movies that I was thinking of was "Pan's Labyrinth", which has some visceral moments of violence juxtaposed against the kind of softer things. A PG-13 version of "Pan's Labyrinth" for me wouldn't have that kind of impact. So it felt like the right balance of things. It was exciting then and it was disturbingly easy to shoot all of those scenes. I had such a fun time doing it.

How closely does this storyline reflect your own world view?

M. Night Shyamalan: They're all a little bit like therapy, these movies, about something that's bothering me. I think everyone in our generation is starting to worry about these kinds of things, especially during an election year. It's thinking about the future. It mimics the 50's where there was the same kind of anxieties about our future, where are we headed, are we going in the right direction, is it too late to change course. I never thought that I was actually all that serious as a person, but when I sit down to write I guess more adult things come out.

The idea of plants having consciousness is a non-western view. Can you talk about how your non-western experience influences you?

M. Night Shyamalan: Definitely. My middle name, Night, is actually an American Indian name. I felt attached to that as a kid, to the American Indian culture and their relationship to nature. Worshipping the sky, the earth, the rock, the bear, that relationship felt correct then as a kid and it feels correct now as an adult. It's interesting that in all of our religions so little is said about how we should feel towards nature. It's an interesting thing to get the hierarchy back in line with the way that it is. We're just one of many living creatures on the planet.

You cast your protagonist as a science teacher and then had a scientist at the end described the limits of rational thought. Does that tie into the spiritual message?

M. Night Shyamalan: I was reading the Einstein biography while I was writing this screenplay. It's a beautiful, beautiful book. One of the things that I was struck by, he rejected religion and was kind of atheistic. In his point of view the hand was God, a divine kind of thing. His life struggle was trying to find an overall formula, an overall thing that could define the kind of design of things. Then he became very religious again. The ultimate man of science became a man of faith. When I was writing Elliot, it affected him because he's just a high school science teacher and he has plenty of gaps in his knowledge of science. That's why Mark [Wahlberg] felt like the right casting because obviously he's a man of faith and to see the things that we don't know, I see that in anyone, whether that's in Einstein or in Elliot's character or in Mark. It is kind of a question of science almost giving evidence to something else.

Do you see this as a popcorn movie? Is it possible to have a popcorn movie with a greater moral theme?

M. Night Shyamalan: Yeah, I do. One of the things that I said to everyone, to the cast and the crew, I said that we were making a movie about an important subject, but this is a B movie. Let's get it straight here. This is a great B movie. We're making the best B movie we can and that's our job. We're going to have a lot of fun. It's a paranoia movie and we just need to pound away at it. That's our job. So I was really clear about that. So in that way it was meant to be entertainment, but all of my movies are a little bit of that.

What is the scientific basis of The Happening?

M. Night Shyamalan: When I came up with the idea I said to the research people, "Give me every piece of information. I want to know from one to ten whether this idea is totally, totally possible, probably or completely impossible." They came back with a stack of information about how the environment works and the plants work. The examples of anomalous things that have happened in the world and how a cotton plant can send out a signal to the other side of the field to tell them that this insect is coming so that they'll send out poisons and send out toxins. I talked to the University of Massachusetts and some other institutes about how the brain works, about toxins and how they affect each other. It was really fun to ground this in science.

Julian Roman